Chatfield State Park
June 16, 2017 / By Katie Hnatik
Chatfield has its good sides and bad sides and which you see depends on what you set out to experience in your outdoor venture. Most of the time, I crave wilderness in remote locations. While it does have some areas that are surrounded by trees, where the sound of singing birds and a flowing river will make you feel like you’re in a serene setting, you’re not far removed from city life, and if you look, you’re likely to find houses or the city within view. Even if Chatfield isn’t a remote wilderness escape, it is a smorgasbord of fun outdoor activities. It has something for just about anyone and in our time here, it has become one of our favorite stomping grounds for a quick fix of the outdoors.
The park encompasses Chatfield Reservoir, which has an incredible history. Understanding the events and the immense flood that led up to the creation of the reservoir may give you a bit more respect for its existence and for the Platte River, its largest tributary. The flood happened in 1965, when nearly an entire year’s worth of rain for the area fell in just three days. As an example of the impact the rain had, Plumb Creek, a tributary to the Platte River, grew from three feet to nearly a mile wide. This was not the only flood seen in the area, but it was the costliest and most damaging before or since the building of Chatfield. For a great in-depth story about the events leading up to the building of the reservoir and how it shaped Denver, I highly recommend reading “The 1965 Flood: How Denver’s Greatest Disaster Changed the City,” an article by Alan Prendergast on Westword.com.
Let’s take a look at the activities that Chatfield has to offer.
Hot Air Balloons
Yes, that’s right, I’m kicking this off with a shout out to hot air balloons in Chatfield Park, because c’mon, hot air balloons are awesome. There are two companies in the Denver area that regularly launch balloons from the Deer Creek area within the park, Fantasy Balloons and Rocky Mountain Hot Air. You can contact them to make reservations for balloon rides year-round, weather permitting. If you’re not up for a ride, it’s still fun to watch them launch. The backdrop of the Front Range along with bright, colorful balloons is sure to brighten your day. To see them launch, show up early. Sunrise is your best bet for catching their lift-off.
Hiking and Biking Trails
Chatfield has 26 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Some are paved, some are not. A number of the unpaved trails wander through woods, near ponds, alongside the Platte River, and can give you a feeling of escape from the city.
One of my favorite hiking trails is located at the Gravel Pond parking lot. It starts as a dirt road, closed to motor vehicles. Head down this road while taking in the lovely views of the pond with the Hogback as a beautiful backdrop. You’ll pass another pond on your left with some small dirt trails leading to and around it. Past the pond, the road will curve to the right as a wide dirt path leading to the left through a small field toward the woods. Take this path. After you reach the trees, you’ll come to a T where a new trail runs along the Platte River. It’s hard to get away from the sounds of traffic in Denver, but here, here the sound of the river and the many different song birds will wash away the sounds of the city. You can go left or right from this point. Facing the river, turning right will take you toward the Chatfield Wetlands and the Audubon Center. Turn left and the trail will meander through the woods, paralleling the river back toward the reservoir. This area has plenty of tree cover and a feeling of wilderness.
There are plenty of other interconnecting paths throughout the park that you can traverse nearly all the way around the reservoir if you like. You won’t run out of places to explore any time soon.
-Here are a few Photospheres around the Gravel Pond hiking area. Click on each for a 360 degree view:
Chatfield’s campground has 197 individual and 10 group campsites. The campground offers electricity for all sites and full RV hook-ups for most, along with paid hot showers and a laundry facility. Firewood is sold within the park, however fire bans are frequently in place so before getting your hopes up for marshmallows roasted over an open fire, be sure to check the current status in Jefferson County and Douglas County as the park lies across county lines. Camping is available year-round but it is a popular destination, so we recommend planning ahead. You can book reservations no less than 3 days or more than 6 months in advance at Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Those who camp at the park love waking up to views of the front range and the plentiful recreation options right at your tent (or RV) door within the park.
A popular destination for fishing, including ice fishing in the winter, Chatfield has several species including largemouth and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, walleye, rainbow trout, bluegill, and yellow perch. Trout fishing is reported to be good year-round. Fishing for smallmouth bass is reported to be best in the south end of the lake and near the dam, though fishing is not allowed from the dam itself or within 100 feet of it. You will need a fishing license here and can purchase one at the park office. The best fishing can be expected early in the morning, or later in the afternoon. If you want your pick at fishing spots, show up early, around sunrise to beat the crowd. The park is open from 5:00am until 10:00pm, however if you are camping, you have 24-hour access to the park. The banks of the reservoir and ponds near parking areas are the most congested. If you are willing to walk a bit further though, you should be able to find a nice, quiet spot of your own to cast your line.
If you’re looking to get out on the water, there are a ton of options here.
• Chatfield offers a swim beach, open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Swimming is only permitted in designated areas and there are no lifeguards on duty here.
• Stand Up Paddling (SUP) is a popular activity during summer months at Chatfield and is permitted on the main reservoir as well as the gravel pond. If you’re new to SUP, sticking to the gravel pond where motorized boats are prohibited will give you a safer and more enjoyable experience. Some local SUP companies even offer rentals at Chatfield. At Colorado SUP Sports you can check out their calendar and pricing, as well as book a rental online. 5280 Paddle Sports also offers rentals and reservations at Chatfield. SUP rentals are typically offered at the Gravel Pond or next to the swim beach where motorized boats are not permitted. Standup paddling is definitely on my list of must-try activities!
• Scuba diving in Chatfield began in the 70’s and the park still attracts divers looking to get their fix. Some local scuba diving schools do open water lessons at the gravel pond or swim pool as well, usually after some initial classes to learn the basics as well as controlled dives in pools. There are several scuba diving schools and gear rental companies in the Denver area that can get you started.
• Boating is one of the main attractions at Chatfield. If you don’t have your own to launch, you can rent fishing boats or pontoons at the Chatfield Marina.
• Jet skiing is also allowed here, but you’ll need to bring your own as they are not for rent inside the park.
345 species of birds have been seen at Chatfield. Some make the park their permanent home and others just stop by during their migrations. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver offers a list of birds that can be downloaded and taken with you on your birdwatching trip. There are also a number of events and activities hosted by the Audubon Society within the park, including “Walk the Wetlands” walks along the South Platt River which take place on the first Sunday of every month from November through March and a “Backyard Bird Count” which takes place in February where you can go on a hike, assist with bird counting, learn how to identify bird species, and how to attract birds to your backyard.
Even if you’re not a serious bird watcher, it’s easy to appreciate the large bird population in Chatfield. Chris and I love watching pelicans flock to the lake and blue herons fishing near the shore. Bright yellow birds swoop from one side of the trail to the other near the ponds, and so many bird songs can be heard from the trails. The birds here are a cheerful and soothing part of the park.
Tips for Chatfield
• Show up early! This park is popular in the summer and on weekends. It’s not uncommon for a line of cars to form at the entrance. If you want to beat the crowd and make a swift entry, plan to arrive close to sunrise. You’ll breeze through the entrance and be on your way to recreation.
• Make reservations if you plan to camp. Weekends fill up fast and holidays doubly so. Try to plan a few months in advance if you can.
• Just like camping spots, reserve rental equipment such as boats or stand up paddle-boards early. Though they may not book up as far in advance as the campground, you’ll still want to take into consideration that this a popular recreation destination for visitors and Denver residents alike.
• You can still find peace and quiet at the park, even when it’s packed full. You might not be the only one on the trail, but there are plenty of places to explore and you can typically find a quiet spot for a picnic.
If you’re new to the Denver area, or on vacation looking for a place to relax, this is a great destination to keep your drive time to a minimum. It’s a taste of the outdoors without leaving the city. You can enjoy lounging around in the sun, or partaking in one of the numerous offerings the park has welcomed to its grounds. Chatfield park is an adult playground where you can take your toys out for a spin, and at the same time still find quiet and beautiful places to decompress your mind.
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